Ever since talking to Richard Niven about the Honda MSX125 he used to explore the Cairngorm Mountains in spain – you can read the article here – and borrowing one for two weeks, I knew I wanted to buy one. And after discovering that Rally Raid Products was in the process of designing quality spoked wheels for it, I also knew it had to be a tribute to the Africa Twin.
I’m not claiming to be the first – there have been some great custom builds by owners along the same theme, and Crescent Honda even had an ‘Africa MSX’ for sale. And of course, there have been Monkey Bike versions of the Africa too…
To me, a custom bike is simply what YOU want it to be. I’m not worried about making something to appeal to anyone else, and I don’t mind if there are similar ideas out there – I just want my bike to do what I want it to, and look like I want it to.
I first downloaded some shots of the version of the Africa Twin that I wanted to base my colour scheme on, as well as took my own close-ups at the Motorcycle Live show, just to nail how some of the details worked.
From there, I printed out several pictures of my plain white bike and started sketching ideas for how it could work. These were a start, but I really nailed what I wanted when I mocked it up on the bike in red and blue insulation tape – you can never get a proper idea of how a colour scheme will look without paying close attention to the swage lines on the bodywork.
After several attempts, I was happy I’d nailed it. I’d also photographed the round badge used on the top-end Hondas at the moment, and stuck an actual-size print out where I’d want it to be mounted.
Finally, I got hold of the original vector graphic files for the Africa Twin and CRF250L logos. The press packs supplied on bike launches often include these, so I had them on file, but you’d be surprised what you can find on Google…
Using Adobe Illustrator, I stripped out the ‘Twin’ on the main graphic, then redrew my own ‘Grom’ in the same style. In America, the MSX125 is called the ‘Grom’ (also a term for a young surfer), which sounds cooler and fits into the logo more easily.
The CRF logo just required the ‘zero’ to be dropped, and a ‘one’ drawn in the correct style.
The last time I built a custom bike was a Yamaha XSR700 when I edited Motorcycle Sport & Leisure magazine; it was really important to me that I did it using parts and materials that anyone could get hold of, and that if it had to be made from scratch, I’d do it myself. That did mean learning to weld, but it was worth it.
It’s the same with the Africa Grom – I didn’t want to just send it off to a specialist and let them do it all. But I have to draw the line at paint. While I painted the luggage racks I built myself, they were easy with rattle cans. The bodywork needed real skill.
I was in the process of writing a series of articles about the insurance industry, and found myself at 4th Dimension, the Egham-based insurance claims specialist. On paper, this doesn’t sound like the most inspiring of places to get a custom paint job done, and granted I’m a geek, but it’s a mind-blowing place.
Basically, 4th Dimension is a company your bike can be sent to in the event of an insurance claim. The facility includes a vast assessment area (where motorcycles are checked for every bit of damage and measured where necessary), rows and rows of holding bays for machines to be safely stored as they wait for parts to come in from around the world, dozens of large workshop areas where mechanics carefully strip and rebuild everything from 50cc scooters to top-end Ducatis… and the paint shop.
The paint shop is huge, and turns out stunning quality work, like this Harley and custom-painted Triumph
This is unlike any bike paint shop I’ve been to before – three full-size walk-in spray booths / ovens, with a fourth dedicated to airbrush work. Racks hold various jigs that carry parts being prepped and painted, while a bank of spotless benches host specialists prepping and finishing of every bike you can imagine.
Just beyond the paint shop is the storage area, where finished bikes – whether they required paint or not – wait to be thoroughly cleaned (even if they came in filthy), before being returned to their owners. It was here I saw some of the examples of the work, from a two-tone Harley that was completely resprayed, to a Triumph Tiger that had a custom paint scheme that the team matched. Exactly.
4th Dimension doesn’t typically take on commission work, but the team does when the customer truly understood the costs involved and the timescale; getting insurance claim customers’ bikes back to them is the priority, so commissions have to fit in as and when possible. I was willing to wait for this quality, as were former clients David Beckham and Tom Cruise.
Bikes have their own specific challenges when it comes to painting, the first being a lack of standardisation. While almost every car has a very specific paint code, most bikes don’t. And despite us all knowing of ‘Kawasaki green’ for instance, there’s not a can of it sitting in a shop somewhere.
When bikes are painted, the factory will mix up a big vat and do a batch of bikes. The next batch will have a new vat, which might be fractionally different. Many bike paints, especially the pearls, have a ‘flop agent’ in, which makes them look ever so slightly different depending how you look at them, and the angle the spray gun is held as the paint’s applied.
Then consider the various plastics and metals the paint’s being put onto, not to mention the finishes, be it a high-gloss lacquer or a matt finish.
4th Dimension has a wall full of sample swatches the team has created, which act as a baseline for brands, models and levels of fade from throughout the years. Picking any one of them off the hooks reveals the differences possible with the way one colour can be applied, and keep in mind that each colour can be made of anywhere between five and ten different tints, with as little as a tenth of a gram totally changing the final colour.
Paul Birt explains just one of the difficulties of matching bike paints
“There are hundreds and hundreds of car body-shops throughout this country alone,” Paul Birt, 4th Dimension’s Technical Development manager told me. “There’s one in every town, so it makes sense for the paint manufacturers to put the research into it. There are dozens of books available that link to the manufacturers’ colour codes and make mixing paint much easier… when it comes to bikes though, there are just a few swatches.”
When a car panel is resprayed, the adjacent panels are typically blended in to match – there’s such a large surface area to work with that a paint that is an almost perfect match can merge into the rest of the panels and never be seen.
It’s not so ‘easy’ on a bike. 4th Dimension paints ‘edge to edge’, which means they’ll paint one panel, and it has to precisely match the one right next to it. This is necessary as the overall surface is relatively small, and most panels will have graphics on, which have to be stripped off and new ones bought if there’s any new paint required.
Now consider how paint fades over time, the matching of which is a huge challenge; sometimes it’s necessary to completely respray a bike that’s too far gone. Once it’s done though, it shouldn’t fade again: “When we do it,” Paul told me, “we put two or three good, thick coats on. And of course, if any customer isn’t completely happy with any repair, we’ll do it again.”
Not everything needs to be repaired or resprayed of course – new panels might be used, or other replacement parts simply bolted on; it depends on the age of the bike, parts availability, the customer’s wishes and the cost at which a bike becomes a write off. 4th Dimension will always work with a customer who doesn’t want to lose their bike.
Richard Stennett is a painter at 4th Dimension: “The quality of most bike paints has gone down over the years – it’s thinner, and rubs through a lot easier than it used to; just take a look at a lot of the frames out there, where the rider’s boot rubs on them.
“A lot of Yamahas, Hondas and Piaggios do have colour codes, but when you check it against the industry swatches that are available, they rarely look anything like the same.
“One of the biggest challenges in what we do is that most motorbikes these days have two or three different colours as standard. A car will usually have one paint finish. Even a bike that has one bodywork colour can be hugely involved – an MT-10 for instance has gloss and matt finishes, and the wheels are a different colour to the bodywork, which is different to the frame.”
The skill involved in making a damaged bike look perfect is immense – the people working in the paint shop are all very highly experienced in specialist finishes; if they went back to the car industry they’d be considered over-qualified. Oh, and like almost everyone else who works at 4th Dimension – office staff, mechanics, drivers etc – they’re all bikers, proven by their motorcycles and scooters parked outside, even in winter.
This custom chopper was painted by 4th Dimension…
To a car sprayer, many OE motorcycle paint schemes would effectively be a ‘custom’ job, but what we bikers call custom is quite different, and 4th Dimension has a dedicated airbrush booth / oven for the more bespoke jobs. From flames to dragons, original custom paint jobs damaged in an accident can be matched or repaired – it’s what you pay your insurance for, so as a (very) specialist repairer, it’s what 4th Dimension does.
My Africa Grom paint job needed to match the colours of the Africa Twin, but in a style and with graphics that had never been done before. Apparently this wasn’t going to be a problem.
It was Richard Stennett who worked on my bike. He studied photos the team took of my Honda before it was stripped down, made some tweaks to improve the design (like painting the engine cases and making the top of the tank blue), and saw it through to completion.
The MSX paint looks good quality as standard, but it’s a cheaper finish than that on Honda’s more expensive models, like the Africa Twin; it’s common for a manufacturer to build to a price point, but all the plastics were repainted with a ‘cleaner’ white anyway, which was much brighter. Overall, there were 16 stages to the job, and that’s not unusual:
1: The surfaces to be painted were keyed (sanded) and repaired where necessary for a perfectly smooth base. The centre panel of the tank was bare plastic, so this also had to have a special primer.
2: A two-stage base coat was applied, consisting of a white base with a silver xirallic (aluminium oxide platelets coated with titanium oxide for a strong but fine sparkle) over the top.
3: The paint was lacquered.
4: It was baked.
5: Everything was flattened (lightly sanded).
6: The blue areas were masked out.
7: The blue candy paint was applied.
8: Another coat of lacquer went on.
9: It was baked again.
10: It was flattened again.
11: The red areas were masked.
12: The red paint was sprayed on.
13: Another coat of lacquer went down.
14: The vinyl graphics were put in place.
15: Everything was flattened. Again.
16: The final coats of lacquer were put on.
“You can’t cut corners on paint,” Richard told me, and this was around two full days of work in total, though as it wasn’t an insurance claim, it was fitted in across a few weeks to not interfere with the other work.
On a bike that simply doesn’t have parts available anymore, for example, a plastic repair might be necessary. It’s something the team is more than capable of, says Phil Howe, paint shop manager: “In plastic welding, all we’re doing is effectively putting the plastic that the panel’s made out of, back into it. There are a few different plastics used, so we have specific rods – just like in metal welding – or sometimes make rods from irreparable sections of the same bodywork.”
On a typical panel repair, a channel is ground along the crack and slightly beyond it at either end, then a rod of the same plastic is melted into the groove. After that it’s sanded down, the panel filled for any minor imperfections, before its painted to leave a perfect, factory finish.
In the case of my Africa Grom, the plastic side panels that I wanted the round Honda badges to be fixed to were slightly curved, so these had to be modified for the badges to sit correctly before being painted black.
Custom paint jobs are just a small part of what 4th Dimension does – besides the other repair work, the team can also build custom parts. Why? Because if you’ve insured you custom-built bike, and are unfortunate enough to be involved in an accident, you need it to go to a company that can rebuild those custom parts, be it an exhaust hanger or a full frame.
To say I’m happy with the Africa Grom so far would be a massive understatement; it’s unique, but it looks like it could have been a Honda factory design, which is exactly what I wanted.
The luggage racks I made are now carrying Kriega OS12 packs, the Yoshimura exhaust looks (and sounds) stunning, while the Barkbuster handguards carry Denali spot lights, adding some welcome night-time safety. But there’s more to be done… Rally Raid has been busy creating its adventure-spec BMW G310GS, so the MSX125 spoked wheels have taken a back seat for a while – once I have them, the Anlas Winter Grip 2 tyres can go on. I also want to make an aluminium bash plate, and find some off-road pegs that’ll fit, not to mention get the seat covered to match the Africa Twin.
The R&G crash protection will help keep this paint looking good, but if something did happen to this, or my KTM 1050 Adventure, having seen the standard of the work and spoken to most of the people in there, I would honestly insist that my insurance company sent it to 4th Dimension to be repaired.
I’ll soon be riding the Africa Grom with 12 Bennetts Insurance customers as we explore the byways and trails of Wales with Nathan Millward. I won’t be the only MSX rider there either – Kunjal Dodhia will be on her adventure-ready Honda, so we’ll find out just how capable these bikes really are...